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After two-week pause, Michigan looks to shake off rust

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Sunday marks the Wolverines’ first game in more than three weeks.

Northwestern v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

When Juwan Howard learned that the Michigan men’s basketball team would be paused for two weeks beginning Jan. 23, his first thought was, “Why?”

The Wolverines haven’t had a COVID-19 case since late in the summer. As teams like Penn State, Nebraska and Michigan State battled COVID-19 issues during the season, Michigan kept chugging along to the tune of a first-place 8-1 Big Ten record.

Soon, though, Howard learned the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recommended the pause as a result of the novel COVID-19 B.1.1.7 variant. According to a report from The Michigan Daily, there were five confirmed cases of the variant and 15 presumptive positives within the department at the time of the recommendation.

“I was disappointed, we all were, but we all understand the big picture,” Howard said during a Zoom call with reporters on Friday. “Health and safety, like I’ve said to you guys, is always (priority) number one. At times I questioned it, but we have to respect the leadership that is in place and we have to understand that the decisions that were made were to keep us safe from this virus that was winning at the time.”

While that made the pause easier to understand, it didn’t make it any less disheartening for players.

“I was frustrated, really frustrated,” sophomore wing Franz Wagner said. “Obviously, I get the decision, but I felt bad for everybody on the team that had done such a good job of making sure that we stayed negative for all this time. I think we deserve to be playing. There are things in life that you can’t control. That’s probably the most frustrating part — you can’t do anything about it.”

On a moment’s notice, the surging Wolverines were halted for two weeks. No practices, no team lifts, no access to facilities. The team used the time to study film — both on themselves and upcoming opponents — and did its best to stay in shape. Not just players, but coaches too. Howard said the whole program sent videos of their workouts in a group text, from associate head coach Phil Martelli on a treadmill to senior forward Isaiah Livers’ two-mile campus run in the cold.

But when Michigan returned to the court earlier this week, the result was still sloppy. In two weeks, the Wolverines devolved from the nation’s No. 4 team to a mess of turnovers, excessive fouling and winded players trying to catch their breath.

The rust was expected, according to Howard. The first chance to shake it off comes in the form of a trip to Madison, where Michigan will face No. 21 Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon. It’ll be the Wolverines’ first game in more than three weeks.

“We may have gotten out of the flow a little bit, but I think we’ll definitely be very amped up and charged up to get back on that end of the court,” fifth-year senior center Austin Davis said. “Just getting over that little hump at the beginning and settling is a big thing for us.”

The Wolverines’ goals remain the same even after the pause, Wagner insisted. They’re the frontrunners for the Big Ten regular-season championship, and Howard has assembled a roster brimming with Final Four potential.

Now, Michigan’s ceiling will be defined by how quickly it can return to form — or whether it can even do so in the first place.